Offshore comes of age at EWEA 2011

EUROPE: If the atmosphere at EWEA 2011 is anything to go by, the offshore sector feels that it is rapidly emerging from the incubator and will soon be standing confidently alongside its more established onshore colleagues.

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All the specific challenges that differentiate offshore wind in Europe were examined at the Brussels event - from financing to permitting, supply chain, logistics and implementation.

Another theme to emerge was that transforming offshore wind's crucible, the North Sea, from a series of disparate projects individually linked to client states to an integrated system of European low-carbon power with connected infrastructure, trading and support mechanisms requires a great deal of joined-up thinking.

Power Cluster, an EU-supported international group set up to integrate North Sea projects, used the event to launch its report, Offshore Wind Industry in Northern Europe. Mathias Grabs, Power Cluster's lead partner, said: "Here is a tremendous opportunity for the development of a major industry, with associated added value for the economy and the potential for exports of leading technology to other regions".

But if Europe's North Sea is to become the global engine room for offshore wind energy, he said, investment is needed to develop the infrastructure, facilitate communication among stakeholders and provide stable policy drivers. Having observed the emergence of new hubs for manufacturing, technology and construction in northern Europe, he added: "Such steps will help kick-start a virtuous spiral of cost reduction and efficiency, allowing further growth."

Integrating large volumes of wind into the existing grid will require major upgrades both on northern Europe's coastlines and from the shore to the largest load centres. The issue is more acute in certain countries depending on the age of the grid and the location of planned offshore plants.

The Danish, Belgian, Dutch and Swedish transmission system operators appear to be relatively confident that the required grid upgrades will be implemented on time, even though major investment is needed. But there are problems in Germany and the UK, where the largest developments are planned. Grabs said Germany presented the biggest bottleneck, with 17GW of generation planned for the North Sea and 850 kilometres of cable needed to accommodate expected capacity in 2020 according to a recent study.

The Windspeed project, supported by the EU's Intelligent Energy Europe programme, showcased its work on how to make space for offshore wind power, with space needed not just for generation assets but also the linkages to integrate them. Windspeed is delivering a tool to show the spatial footprint of offshore wind farms and grids in relation to non-wind functions in the North Sea, such as shipping, which should enable players to evaluate trade-offs between generation costs from offshore wind and constraints due to non-wind functions.

The Windspeed project is building an inventory of potential and related infrastructure alongside other activities but also exploring how these could interact. Unveiling a vision for an offshore grid for 2030, Windspeed showed a web linking six countries with eight offshore connection hubs providing two-way electricity flows enabling the North Sea to circumvent variable wind flows and electricity-generation capabilities.

EWEA's Powering Europe report, issued at the end of last year, also sees a transnational offshore grid growing from national initiatives. It suggests a modular network interconnecting wind farms and power systems to be built in three stages, starting with national grids using point-to-point interconnectors that would allow trading between national power systems.

The second phase would be a move to a transnational interconnected grid. Long-distance lines dedicated to offshore wind projects would be put in place and locations of future wind installations would, if possible, be adapted to fit the new infrastructure.

The third phase would involve linking up the six major North Sea countries - Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Norway - between 2020 and 2030, under the aegis of the European Commission and the European Network of Transmission System Operators (Entso-e). Entso-e has a North Sea and a Baltic working group, as well as groups looking at 2050 and the so-called supergrid with continent-wide remit.

Perhaps the most visionary picture of a joined-up low-carbon-energy Europe came from EWEA's EU Energy Policy to 2050 document released at the event. By 2050, it foresees wind power meeting 50% of Europe's electricity demand. What emerged clearly was that a coordinated grid policy within an integrated European market was a pre-requisite for this goal.

Without it, massive offshore development will amount to no more than a collection of disparate projects.

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